New Beginnings- Tips for the new school year

Picture taken by KristinNador and retrieved from on 8/19/13

I love the beginning of the school year. I always get excited when I walk into a store at the end of the summer and the smell of new school supplies fills the air. I have to be restrained when the clearance sales start to hit Target. I am known to buy new notebooks just for the sake of buying a new notebook, not because I need them. There’s just something about starting off with clean, empty notebook. It holds the promise of projects to be completed, knowledge to be gained, things to be done. Our son started kindergarten this year and I just couldn’t wait to buy everything on his supply list. I think I had it done two weeks before he actually started school. This is not normal for me, the perpetual procrastinator, but I love school supplies. When we moved last year we had at least three boxes of office supplies. I think I might need an intervention.

I have been in school, or working at a school almost my entire life. When I was a newborn baby my mom used to take me with her to her classes at the community college (she had me on a Thursday and was back in the classroom the next week). As long as I can remember, formal learning has been a part of my life. The only brief exception to was the two years that I spent working at a private firm after getting my masters degree and I was most mostly miserable at that time.

One of the great things about living your life within the cycle of the school year is that there is are continuous opportunities to start fresh and new. Each new school year, or even each new semester, is like a brand new notebook, a blank slate. I have a chance to rework and reorganize the courses that I teach. I can throw out the things that didn’t work last semester and try some new ideas. I go through a process of refinement each time I teach a course and I hope that it keeps getting better. Here are some tips to help you get off to a great start for this school year:

1) Get organized. The best courses are organized courses. Students smell disorganization like they smell fear.  Plan out your entire semester before it begins. I’m not saying that you need to have every lecture prepared and every exam written, but give yourself a good framework to build on. I set up a document in Microsoft Excel  that helps me to lay out all of the chapters that I plan to cover, my learning goals, the labs I want to perform and the exams I want to give. It gives me a great way to look at the timeline and match things up as best as possible. For example, I want to make sure that if I am covering photosynthesis in lecture, that I am also doing the lab on photosynthesis in the same week. I constantly refer back to this document throughout the semester to make sure that I am staying on track and covering all of the material that I planned.

2) Change things up. One of the worst things that we can do as instructors is to teach the same course, in the same way, over and over again. It is boring, and there is no way that you have perfected your particular course. Take some time to reflect on what worked in the previous semester (or year), and what didn’t. For example, this semester I am making adjustments to the way that I use my online homework program.  In the past I have found that students don’t take the assignments seriously because it wasn’t a large portion of the grade and the assignments were too easy. I have tightened up that portion of my course in an attempt to make it better.

3) Reflect. Take time to think about why you teach. The beginning of the school year is a great time to step back and think about why you are doing this. What is your purpose as a teacher? What drives you? Do you still love what you do? As you head into the new year, it helps to have a clear vision of why you do what you do. It is easy to get lost in the minutia of the day to day teaching responsibilities. Maybe take a few minutes to journal about it. Keep those thoughts nearby so that when you get twenty emails on a Sunday night asking about a homework assignment that is due the next day you don’t lose faith or throw your hands up in despair.

These are just a few things that I find helpful as I get started with my new year. What helps you? Is there one thing that you do each year to get off on the right foot?

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